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First true road game a daunting challenge for UConn men

UConn embarks on what will be a revealing two-game road trip this week.

By the time consecutive challenging contests at No. 18 Arizona (9-3) Thursday and Auburn (10-1) Saturday are over, the Huskies will know a lot more about themselves.

"It's the first true road trip for us," said coach Kevin Ollie after his weekly radio show on Monday. "Arizona is a great home team. Auburn is playing good basketball. So we can learn a lot. I'm looking forward to seeing how the guys respond."

The Huskies (7-3) start by playing the surging Wildcats at a hostile McKale Center in Tucson where they've won 73 of their last 75 home games.

Adding to the degree of difficulty is that Arizona appears to be hitting its stride, winning six straight to recover from a three-game losing streak in late November that knocked it from the No. 2 spot to out of the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

Coming off an 11-day exam break, UConn is attempting to build some momentum and improve its resume prior to beginning American Athletic Conference play on Dec. 30 against No. 11 Wichita State.

An impatient Husky fan base has cranked up the heat in recent weeks after watching their team struggle to beat several mid-major opponents.

Ollie isn't worried about style points.

"We're not going to apologize for any of them," he said. "We're not winning by 25 or 30, but we're winning. We're finding ways to win. We've got a lot of new guys. I know we're getting better. And we're just going to keep getting better and better and better. We're going to cut out all the negative noise and we're going to control what we can control."

To win against a nationally-ranked opponent on the road, the Huskies have to play with poise under pressure and put forth their best effort of the season.

Defense, normally a reliable force for the program, needs to improve. UConn ranks next to last in the AAC in scoring defense at 71.5 and field goal percentage defense at 42.9.

"I'm used to holding opponents under 39 percent," Ollie said. "We're giving up 43 percent. The three-point shot, we're giving up too much. So there's a lot of things that we've got to clean up."

It would be a fatal mistake for the Huskies to repeat their sins against Arizona, a potent team that features the lethal trio of junior guard Allonzo Trier (21.7 points), sophomore guard Rawle Alkins (14.7) and 7-foot-1 forward Deandre Ayton, who's one of the top freshman in the nation, averaging 20.3 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. 

"I probably haven't seen a big like him in the last 15 years that can do the different things that he can do," Ollie said.

Throw in 7-foot senior center Dusan Ristic, and UConn will be at a decisive size disadvantage.

A reliable presence has yet to emerge from UConn's young and unproven frontcourt rotation. It could get ugly in a hurry if there isn't a noticeable improvement.

"We haven't had a consistent guy step up and stay out of foul trouble and play consistent minutes or give us what we need on a day to day basis," Ollie said. "Hopefully we can just keep pushing them and hopefully somebody emerges. This would be a helluva trip to emerge. Everybody and their mama is going to come out and see Deandre Ayton.

"I remember playing games like this when everybody was going to see this guy and that guy. Alright, they've got to come see me. I've been really telling the guys about that. Take the challenge. This is a great challenge for you against probably the consensus No. 1 pick."

The Huskies continue to be without injured starting guard Alterique Gilbert.

Ollie remains optimistic his team can find a path to victory under difficult circumstances.

"We want to keep it close," Ollie said. "We've got to cut our turnovers down and then we've got to shoot the ball much better than what we've been doing."

g.keefe@theday.com

UCONN at No. 18 ARIZONA

Location: McKale Center, Tucson, Ariz.

Tip: 9 p.m. (ESPN2)

Records: UConn 7-3, Arizona 9-3

Last game: UConn beat Coppin State, 72-59, Dec. 9; Arizona defeated North Dakota State, 83-53, Monday

Probable starters: UConn, 6-2 grad. guard Antwoine Anderson (9.4 pts), 6-3 jr. guard Jalen Adams (19.2 pts, 4.1 rebs, 3.7 assists), 6-2 so. guard Christian Vital (12.8 pts, 4.7 rebs), 6-8 redshirt jr. forward Terry Larrier (15.6 pts, 5.7 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward Eric Cobb (1.8 pts, 3.8 rebs)

Arizona, 5-11 sr. guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright (7.4 pts, 4.8 assists), 6-5 so. guard Rawle Alkins (14.7 pts, 4.3 rebs), 6-5 jr. guard Allonzo Trier (21.7 pts), 7-1 fr. forward Deandre Ayton (20.3 pts, 11.8 rebs), 7-0 sr. center Dusan Ristic (9.2 pts, 6.0 rebs)

Noteworthy: Coming off an 11-day exam break. ... First true road game for Huskies. ... Arizona riding six-game winning streak. Won 46 straight non-conference games at home. ... Series: UConn leads 5-0, winning last meeting, 65-63, in 2011 NCAA West Regional Championship in Anaheim, Calif. Won only trip to Arizona, 100-98 (OT) in 2002. ... Top reserve: 6-6 fr. guard Brandon Randolph (7.4 pts). ... Player to watch: Ayton, a McDonald's All-American and first top rated recruit to attend a Pac-12 program since 2007. ... Wildcats outrebound foes by 7.4 per game. ... Huskies 0-1 vs. ranked teams this year, falling to No. 4 Michigan State. ... Hot: Arizona shooting 52.2 percent from field. Cold: UConn last in AAC in field goal percentage at 40.7. Only shot better than 43 percent twice this season. ... Huskies 23-7 all-time vs. Pac-12 teams. ... Injury update: UConn's Alterique Gilbert (shoulder) out for fifth straight game, Trier (mild knee sprain, likely to play). ... Up next: UConn visits Auburn Saturday.

— Gavin Keefe

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